When an -ing verb is applied to describe a noun, is it always an adjective? (or something else)

For example: "A dancing ninja showed up today." - is "dancing" an adjective in this context? (In this case, referring literally to a ninja who dances.)

Specifically, in use: https://twitter.com/DrawmaticAR/status/1225527363489976320


2 Answers 2


It depends on the context. It could mean two things. The most likely is:-

... a Ninja (which is) dancing

In that case, dancing is a participle and so an adjective, qualifying the noun Ninja.

But, however improbably, it could also mean

a Ninja for dancing

That is, our Ninja might be a strange sort of dancing instructor. Unlikely, of course but grammatically possible. And in that case dancing would function as a noun (a so-called gerund), by analogy with ‘cricket bat’, where ‘cricket’ is strictly a noun, but is serving a bit like an adjective.

Nevertheless, despite this grammatical hall of mirrors, ‘dancing’ in your phrase is in all probability an adjective. Had you supplied a fuller context, we could be certain.

  • Updated with the context - What would the second case be called?
    – ina
    Feb 6, 2020 at 8:10
  • @ina People would assume, I think, that in that context ‘dancing’ is a participle, by analogy with a ‘dancing bear’. But this is getting surreal.
    – Tuffy
    Feb 6, 2020 at 8:18
  • @ina Tuffy has already written that 'dancing' in the second case is a gerund. But that is not a function name. 'Gerund' says that we have a verb form acting like a noun. The function of 'dancing' in the second case is called noun adjunct, attributive noun, qualifying noun, or noun (pre)modifier.
    – Ben A.
    Feb 6, 2020 at 13:37
  • What about "a crying baby"?
    – Lambie
    Feb 6, 2020 at 18:02
  • @Lambie 'crying' in 'a crying baby' is also "type one". It's an active present participle and in this constellation it has the function of a participial adjective.
    – Ben A.
    Feb 7, 2020 at 9:55

"Dancing" in "dancing ninja" can be understood as either a verb or participial adjective. The difference between participial adjectives (both -ed and -ing ones) and the corresponding verbs is not always clear-cut. In general, participial adjectives denote more stable properties of the noun referent. In other words, to read "dancing" in "dancing ninja" as an adjective, your ninja would need to be some sort of a professional or habitual dancer. As suggested above, that is an unlikely but by no means an impossible reading. So the only remaining way to understand the phrase is that ninja was dancing when he entered the place. The meaning of "dancing" is clearly verbal - it is a verb. Finally, word classes are defined with a view to be mutually exclusive . Verbs and adjectives are two separate word classes, which means that one cannot be the other. This applies to any word class - each is defined as a set of words possesing its unique characterics and at the same time lacking characteristics unique for any other word clasd.

  • I would be interested in an example of a unique characteristic of, say, an adjective. And in how you would classify smoking in, for example, His smoking 20 cigarettes a day is damaging his health.
    – Shoe
    Feb 6, 2020 at 19:38
  • It is important to keep in mind that, speaking in absolute terms, it is rather a set of properties that makes a class distinctive and secondly, not all properties of the set are shared among all the members. None of the main properties of adjectives is absolutely unique to them but they are unique to them in their specific environments. For example, a predicative element that can be graded cannot be anything other than an adjective. An element of a verb phrase (other than linking verbs) that can be graded cannot be anything else but an adverb.
    – user97589
    Feb 6, 2020 at 21:57
  • I've updated with a link of the specific use. Basically, when you add the adjective "dancing" in front of a person noun, they will show up as a dancing character.
    – ina
    Feb 6, 2020 at 22:14
  • @shoe i would classify smoking as part of its trailing extended noun (?) "smoking 20 cigarettes a day..." - but i'm by no means an expert in this area and i'm also curious how that would be classified!
    – ina
    Feb 6, 2020 at 22:15
  • For a long time people struggled with the term gerund and what the term is supposed to entail. In Quirk's grammar you can find a sort of a spectrum intended to fine-grade the uses of the -ing form, starting from what is clearly an -ing noun, through examples of a sort of a mongrel, called gerund, and ending with clear verbal ing forms. The term gerund is an example of what it looks like when there is a serious flaw in a grammatical model. Instead of analyzing the ing form in "his smoking 20 cigarettes" as a gerund, as was done before, it makes far more sense to think it as a verb.
    – user97589
    Feb 6, 2020 at 22:17

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.